Media Madness

Blaise Pascall, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, thought the world’s problems could be solved if we could each learn to sit quietly in a room. But we have never been able or content to do that. We want distraction, and what we call ‘the media’ has provided it. Maybe it always did. Only now, all the discursive platforms, not just the tabloid press, have been invaded by sound-bite sleight of hand.

On TV, it is the illusion that those on camera lead lives more worthy and fun than our own. Newspapers, once alert to Fleet Street editor, Hugh Cudlip’s directive, “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable,’ are part of the scam. Even on a supposedly serious broadsheet, such as ‘The Age’, Cudlip’s dictum is quaint, and all but dead.

There are many reasons for this. ‘The Age’ used to be run by a family that believed in independence. Newspapers were not expected to perform like banks. Now owned by institutional shareholders led by businessman and bagman for the Liberal party, Ron Walker, the paper aims, not to be just a pillar of the community, but its pillow as well.

It has been absorbed into a corporate quilt, with mission statements and team leaders, performance reviews and support for events such as the Grand Prix; big ticket items it is simultaneously supposed to report upon. Even Radio National, now with its own brand of product-placement in the form of repetitious self-promotion, has bought into the spin-cycle. You only have to watch Kerry O’Brien interviewing an old rocker on ‘The 7.30 Report’ to know it is not just the glossies that endow Hollywood glitterati with the allure of celestial beings. We might suspect, as director Terry Gilliam, says that, “nobody in Hollywood says anything and believes it,” but we still want to watch.

What is the lure of celebrity? Why does every editor, including those running so-called serious papers and programs, prefer Kylie’s bum to an investigation? Is it just, as the advertisers always believed, about sex. Henry Porter author of ‘Dammed Lies and Some Exclusives’ has complained that all editors seem to crave a guide to the G-spot of middle Australia. But it is also about hiding from wrinkles, those of our own, and our society. Celebrities simplify things. If the most important event of the day is Tom Cruise getting on Oprah’s couch to shout his love for a fellow actor, then there is not much to worry about. Why ask a poet or philosopher about life when you can ask a TV personality, and immediately create a bond of comfort? ‘Brian knows’ used to be the slogan of Melbourne’s channel 9 news. Brian Naylor, in fact, did not know much, arriving by helicopter, as he did, to read a teleprompter. But he looked the part.

And that is what counts. Or, is it? Journalists, no matter how well informed, have never had much contact with their readers or viewers. They operate in a narcissistic bubble, where often the main concern is how they will look in the cut-away shot, or whether the story could earn them an award. Media may claim to be distinctive, but they struggle to be first with the obvious. The modern paradox is that in this age of globalisation, news is much more parochial than in the days when communication from abroad ticked slowly across the world by telegraph. I’ve had some experience of this shift. When I arrived in China in 1988, the communications centre for the Beijing bureau of the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the London Financial Times, for whom I was correspondent, consisted of an ageing telex machine and telephone.

It took an hour or so to type a feature length story into the machine, extract the thin tape with the encoded letters, and then feed that into a slot that would, very slowly, transmit the story to Australia and Britain. There were no computers or mobile or even satellite, phones. And there was no reliable domestic source of news on which base or verify facts. All of which was a pain, but not, in the wash-up, very important.

What was important, as it turned out, was not the technology, but the state of mind I bought to the country, and the biggest story I would ever cover, the Beijing uprising of 1989, and the massacre that followed. An estimated 3,000 people died when the Peoples Liberation Army rolled into Beijing firing tracer bullets from behind a wall of tanks on the night of June 3. But, to report those horrifying scenes, and the culpability of the government behind them, required no more than to do what Primo Levi, the best writer on the Holocaust, advised – don’t look away. In fact, as the butchers of Beijing, some of whom still occupy senior roles in the regime, cranked up their cut and paste alibi for the blood letting, something as simple as seeing was decisive.

A picture they say is worth 1000 words. But I don’t believe it. Just as Big Brother doctors his images of life in the house to create a concocted narrative, China’s rulers edited footage of the obscene murders they committed to give the impression of a foreign fermented rebellion. It was laughable, but many in the West believed it. Maybe we should not be surprised. Terrible events going back to the witch trials in Salem 300 years ago, and even before, teach us that people will be persuaded of the reality even of dimly perceived or invisible happenings by the intensity of their own responses. Emotions are forged in editing suites and on newspaper make up desks.

Marshall McLuhan warned us about the phenomena 40 years ago when he predicted we would become numb to the electric world of media in the same way indigenous people did when they contacted literate and mechanical culture. Media change is a massacre of the innocents, he said, arguing that it was only the serious artist who could encounter technology with impunity. This is because the artist is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception that is now the stock in trade of media.

Only someone trained to look through reflective surfaces can possibly nullify their impact. Media is diverting simply because it is active, and an approximation or life. It tells stories, accounts that we all somehow believe hold more than we do. But what sort of stories are they when post-modern culture involves a jaded, insidious inner colonization of human subjects, one that tries to appropriate our deepest longings. When the intimate self is hijacked by advertisers and sold back to us as fulfilment, and the media that is the vehicle for the hard sell stays complicit, there is no critique.

Media has bought into shiny surfaces and a cult of winners. But, as George Bernard Shaw noted, all progress depends on the loser. This is because the successful person adapts to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Loss, however, does not sit easily in the media, unless it is a cliche of fall and redemption. Yet, it is in loss that media has a role to play, as anyone who has tried to write well will know. You have to put up with emptiness to discover new thoughts and new ways of seeing. Merely to join the echo chamber that is the media is to say again what another has thought. I am interested in a media that tells stories that do not conform, and are not hostage to glamour, that quality which, as Victor Hugo observed, is like “the bed of Louis X1V; magnificent and there are bugs in it.”

Our media is not showing us the bugs. It is not helping us do what Orwell believed we should: watching the use of power like you would a mad dog that might jump at your throat, should you turn your eyes away from it for one second.” We need to see more clearly and for that require a media that asks questions more than provides answers.